Beethoven, part 2

Continuing from last week....

Beethoven's symphonic output is obviously central to the development of the form itself and to classical repertory in general. His symphonies are consistently among the top vote getters in classical music polls, as well as being models for subsequent composition in a variety of styles. Again, I highly recommend a complete set of recordings, in this case Harnoncourt's wonderful set on Teldec. Taking the symphonies in turn, the First already shows Beethoven as a major composer. It hangs together fairly well, with little pretension, and makes a strongly original statement. The inherent lyrical weaknesses are already in evidence, this time without the audacious formal schemes to mask them, and there is a sense of hard work about it all. Nonetheless, I find it enjoyable, and a worthy nod toward Haydn and Mozart. With the Second, Beethoven is already proving too great a challenge for many of his contemporaries. Here there is a distinctly original combination of old & new, illustrating the sort of concern he maintained throughout his career, and demonstrating a powerful command of form. I find this symphony quite satisfying, and certainly well within the realm of Beethoven's own world of personal expression. The Third is, of course, a self-consciously bold step. I must remark with some pleasure that it was only recently, and paradoxically only through arduous study and preparation, that I was able to hear it as bold and even shocking. Taking these sorts of impressions from the purely intellectual domain into the directly felt is difficult for music this far removed, but worth it. The truth is, though, I don't enjoy the "Eroica" much. It is unwieldy and pretentious. However, with the Fourth, there is no equivocation. I can be awed by the work, with its union of lyrical and formal ideas. If a bit unrelenting in mood, it certainly makes clear that Beethoven will revolutionize the symphony. The Fifth is extremely famous, even outside classical music circles, and its opening can barely be perceived as anything but cliché. This is not the fault of the work itself, of course, and the first movement presents the sort of hair-raising tautness found already in such piano sonatas as the "Appassionata." The rest of the symphony does not quite live up to that, but it is a work which does continue to make an impression. The Sixth is again unwieldy, but offers some wonderful and famous passages. I confess to being unable to enjoy it as a whole, especially knowing what it foreshadows. The emphasis on dance in the Seventh seems rather unprecedented, although one can potentially view it as looking back to the pre-"Eroica" world of the Second. It seems quite timeless & lofty to me, although marked by a latent harshness which has perhaps secured it a teflon covering over the decades. The Eighth likewise has an ominous quality which raises discomfort in a work which is otherwise lyrically expressive and well-balanced. It is perhaps even more enigmatic than the Seventh, and certainly both can be perceived as Beethoven working in a vacuum, with little in the way of feedback from either human or sonic worlds. When it comes to the Ninth, I must immediately defer... I am incapable, thus far, of hearing the final movement as anything but a caricature of itself. It is simply too ubiquitous and emblematic. Without that, I am really unable to hear the symphony as a whole, although I do enjoy the massive scherzo on its own. Well, this paragraph is itself massive. Full stop.

The twentieth century has given the string quartets an increasingly prominent place in Beethoven's output. I am somewhat ambivalent on them, although I do value aspects and continue to feel an obligation to confront them. Certainly the establishment of the medium as the "most personal" is something with which I am in agreement. In this case, the performance recommendation is more equivocal, but I do favor the second cycle (the live one) by the Alban Berg Quartet on EMI. The series of works progresses in discrete jumps, undoubtedly due to the precedence given to other media. So while I find the opening Op.18 quartets quite stimulating on the intellectual level, they have more the character of "studies" than they do finished works per se. Likewise, the "Rasumovsky" quartets are analogous to the Op.31 Sonatas in that, despite several interesting features, they are primarily transitional works which attempt new harmonic layouts within the constraints of sonata form. They are stimulating, but not compelling. To find Beethoven quartets with a finished artistic quality, we must wait for the "Harp" and "Serioso" quartets, and these are indeed complete statements of original scope. Here the emphasis has returned to the cantabile mode in which string instruments can be most idiomatic, but within a more adventurous harmonic scheme. I find both of these fairly satisfying, if unspectacular. Moving on to the late quartets, the cantabile expression becomes increasingly strained, which is undoubtedly part of point. The Op.127 Quartet foreshadows some interesting ideas even if it does not consummate them (while I reject the notion that Op.95 is similarly transitional). The dimensions of Op.132 are anticipated by the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, and the celebrated slow movement does not touch me here either, although there is some interesting writing elsewhere. From there, the number of movements expands to six and seven, for reasons rather unclear to me. There is a degree of laxness about the overall conception of Op.130 & Op.131 which seems rather uncharacteristic of Beethoven. Although Op.131 especially has some extremely fine moments & even movements, taken as a whole it seems rambling and arbitrary. Nonetheless, I do value both of these quartets. With Op.135, Beethoven returns to a usual sequence of movements, and I consequently find more emotional impact in the work as a whole. If overly burlesque in mood, it does forge a fully finished idiom which seems to be more of a beginning than an end. These quartets rethink the usual ideas of contrast within the sonata form, frequently abandoning it for variation or fugal treatments which are more unified but then more contrasted in their harmonic schemes. It is a massive achievement to displace the usual locus of contrast in such works into a different plane, orthogonal to the usual forms. It is also important to note that the "degree of overall contrast" remains quite similar throughout, and there is certainly an element of human perceptual constraint at work here.

Perhaps analogously to the body of performances of which I am in such envy, it is only too easy to continue talking at great length about Beethoven. I have already failed to keep this column within my constraints, and have been forced to move the two bloated paragraphs above onto this other page. Beethoven raised so many issues that it has been difficult for subsequent composers to confront and address them all, and without doing so, their output is necessarily limited in the sense that it does not fully come to terms with tradition. However, Beethoven eschewed many potential directions, both from within his work and without. His implications need not be taken as all or nothing, and indeed I intend to discuss the later Romantics soon.

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Todd M. McComb